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Can Medical Marijuana Treat Atherosclerosis?

By on April 25, 2013

Summary (click to view)

  • Atherosclerosis is a disease that damages the arteries
  • Atherosclerosis can lead to more deadly heart diseases, including heart attack and stroke
  • Research shows that THC and CBD can reduce problems associated with atherosclerosis, even at low doses
  • Other studies show that marijuana use may increase the risk of heart diseases like angina
  • Experts believe that smoking marijuana may counteract its heart benefits 
  • TruthOnPot.com – Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2010, heart disease claimed even more lives than cancer.

    But while heart attacks and stroke often seem to strike without warning, 75% of all cardiovascular related deaths happen to be caused by a more premeditated and preventable disease known as atherosclerosis.

    What is Atherosclerosis?

    Damaged arteries can restrict blood flow. Image source

    Atherosclerosis is a cardiovascular disease that affects the arteries, causing them to harden and narrow. Atherosclerosis results from of a build-up of fat along the inner cell lining – the endothelium – of blood vessels. This build-up provokes an inflammatory response from the immune system, causing further damage to the arteries.

    Atherosclerosis is a common underlying factor in fatal heart diseases, including heart attacks and strokes. And while the exact cause of atherosclerosis remains unknown, established risk factors include tobacco use, high blood pressure, unhealthy fat intake and high glucose levels.

    While exercise and dietary changes may be able to slow the progression of the disease, millions of patients still find themselves turning to medication for relief. Common choices include blood thinners like aspirin and cholesterol lowering drugs known as statins.

    However, recent studies suggest that there may be another option for atherosclerosis patients. Indeed, there is now evidence that medical marijuana might be able to prevent the devastating outcomes of atherosclerosis, and without the side-effects of traditional pharmaceuticals.

    How Can Marijuana Help?

    Cannabinoid receptors have been found throughout the cardiovascular system, leading experts to believe that the endocannabinoid system might play a major role in the regulation of heart function and circulation. Furthermore, there is now significant evidence that suggests a therapeutic role of cannabinoids in a variety of heart conditions, including atherosclerosis.

    Cannabinoids are known to be major regulators of the immune system, specifically as an anti-inflammatory. Since inflammation is a large aspect of atherosclerosis, researchers have suggested that cannabinoids may be able to counter the progression of this disease.

    Steffens et al. (2005) were the first investigators to provide support for this assumption, by showing that low doses of oral THC could inhibit progression of atherosclerosis in mice. Their study found that a 1 mg/kg daily dose of THC elicited the most beneficial response, which is much lower than the amount of THC that causes psychoactive effects. The study also confirmed that THC acted to decrease the inflammatory response of the immune system, providing further support for its anti-inflammatory role in heart disease.

    Endothelial dysfunction is another important factor in atherosclerosis that appears to be affected by cannabinoids. Studies show that activation of CB2 receptors can reduce a number of endothelial-related problems – including problems associated with high glucose diets like fat build-up – in various animal and human models of atherosclerosis.

    “Cannabidiol has been shown to be effective in protecting endothelial function and integrity in human coronary artery endothelial cells.”

    Excerpt from Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs (2009)

    Studies have also found cannabinoids to be protective in ischemia-reperfusion injury, which is damage caused by inflammation upon the return of blood supply to oxygen-deprived tissues. This condition is common after suffering from a stroke or brain trauma, suggesting that medical marijuana may also aid patients in recovering from these catastrophes.

    On the other hand, there are also a number of studies that have linked cannabis use with an increased risk of angina and other acute coronary syndromes. Although such evidence seems to directly contradict with proof of marijuana’s protective effects, experts believe that the side-effects associated with smoking may play a part in these findings.

    Indeed, smoking can expose patients to a variety of hazardous compounds, which could potentially counter the protective effects of the cannabinoids themselves. Furthermore, while studies point to activity of CB2 receptors as the source of marijuana’s cardiovascular benefits, other studies suggest that CB1 activity may have an opposite effect.

    What This Means For Your Health

    Overall, research is still in its early stages and has yet to progress to clinical trials. As a result, health experts remain uncertain about the true benefits that marijuana may provide for patients suffering from atherosclerosis.

    But for those who are undeterred by the lack of widespread acceptance, it’s important to note that traditional methods of cannabis use may not be the best way of harnessing its treatment potential. Likewise, doctors and patients have begun to advocate for vaporizers and edibles as a healthier way of consuming marijuana.

    Furthermore, research suggests that different cannabinoids may have different effects when it comes to atherosclerosis. While THC acts on both CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD is believed to act primarily on CB2 receptors. As a result, CBD-rich strains of marijuana may be a better choice for the treatment of atherosclerosis.